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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some of 2014's Gifts

Inspired by Tara Lynne Groth, who blogs from the last place I lived and who was inspired by another blogger, who was inspired by a blogger before that, I'm taking the last day of the year to reflect on 2014. Skimming over the bad news of the year, here are ten things I can consider 2014's gifts.

1. My husband and I moved to the Northeast after five long years away.

2. I got a job working with my two favorite languages, English and Spanish.

3. This job meant that my husband and I could stay in the Northeast.

4. Early snow.

5. No traffic accidents.

6. I finished my second novel, Awash in Talent, and the people who've read it say it's my best writing yet.

7. I got to meet Thelma and Louise.

8. I got to see Harapan.

9. Saxophone Santa.

10. My husband reads to me and sings me Happy Birthday for weeks surrounding the actual day. This amounts to more good fortune than can be counted, period.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry, Happy Christmas!

I worked on Christmas Eve (which the company says will be observed on December 26, so it's okay). A lot of "key players" had already started their celebrations off company premises, but the employees who came in were celebrating, too! Colorful sweaters, pizza parties, and bright smiles abounded. Just like Santa's elves, we got our deliverables out, of course, but that's not what I'll remember about this year. I will remember the welcome they gave my husband, who doesn't work there, and a generosity that would make Emmet Otter's Ma say, "Anybody'd be interested!"

To spread the joy, I can't resist these links, which show you how in the Middle Ages, life wasn't quite as nasty, brutish, and short as later critics would have us believe because every year, Christmas came around to brighten it up.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Author Kristin Gleeson's Children's Book Inspiration

Kristin Gleeson, already the author of Selkie Dreams and Anahareo, has just released an even more magical (if that's possible) novel, Along the Far Shores. In it, a twelfth-century Irish woman travels to American shores. Even more amazing to consider, the story is based on an ancient legend that may just have a grain of truth in it. Kristin stopped by to share what inspired such an unexpected mixture of cultures.

Inspiration for novels can come from almost anywhere, some unexpected places. For Along the Far Shores, it was especially unusual. When I was a children’s librarian outside of Philadelphia years ago, I was doing some much needed weeding and I came across this book that told about the legend of Prince Madog of Wales’s voyage to America in 1170. It wasn’t a beautifully illustrated picture book; it was a nonfiction text that investigated the legend in order to substantiate its truth.

I was so intrigued, I took it home and read it in a night. I have to confess I’d never heard of the legend before this. I’d heard of Leif Ericsson’s eleventh century voyage along Labrador and that area and of course I heard of the sixth-century voyage of St. Brendan, which again was most likely up in the northern areas of the Americas. Madog’s voyage apparently ended up in Mobile Bay, in what is now Alabama, and he sailed up what is now called the Mad Dog River. All very intriguing.

At the same time, I was writing a novel that looked at the red-haired plaid-clothed mummies that were discovered in the Xinxiang Province in western China. They dated back to about 1500 BC, long before any archaeological evidence of “Celts” or what we group as Celts, though they seemed to share many of the same characteristics in their burial patterns, clothing composition and other items. I loved the idea of it and my novel evolved as two parallel narratives, one in the ancient past that brought a small proto Tlingit group and a proto Irish/Celtic group together, and the present that brought an Irish woman and a Tlingit man together. In the many centuries in between those periods I thought I would write other novels that told the story of similar encounters between the two groups where I could show the two cultures in different periods and the aspects of prejudices and assumptions that each time period might have. Linking all this was a medallion passed down through the centuries and back and forth and appearing in each novel as a connection that means something strongly to one of the characters. 

When I read the Madog tale, it seemed like a wonderful event to use as part of this novel chain. Aisling, an Irish noblewoman, escapes the turmoil in her country only to find a similar situation in Wales, where her brother is serving one of the many princes. She stows away on Madog’s ship in order to be with her brother and is tossed overboard during a storm. She is rescued by a Tlingit trader, Caxna, who reluctantly takes her along his trading journey, first to the declining Mayan city of Xicallanca and then later to Etowah, the powerful city of the Mississippian empire.  For Caxna a successful journey means his clan’s freedom. But Aisling changes everything. 

Very exciting! Along the Far Shores is available in ebook and softcover. Visit Kristin's site to learn much more! 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Six Years of Christmas

Having a full time job has made me into one of those people who just can't do it all. This blog has suffered most. I've worked hard on it for years and appreciate every single one of my readers, so my New Year's Resolution will have something to do with establishing a regular schedule here again.

Looking back on the year at this holiday time has brought to mind all the travels (and accompanying emotional ups and downs) my husband and I have done since we met. And so, enjoy photos that represent Christmas through the past six years.

We had been living together in Massachusetts for half a year when Christmas 2008 rolled around, and it was a small apartment and so had only a tiny potted Christmas tree at home. But we had love, and my husband was determined to fulfill a promise he'd made sooner rather than later, so we also had Mickey! At Disneyworld! An unbelievable Christmas.

Christmas 2009 was bare-bones. We had moved to Pennsylvania only days before. But at least we had love, and Saxophone Santa (still our favorite holiday toy). See Saxophone Santa in action here and with a friend here.

The following year, we had placed our stuff in storage and moved in with my gracious sister-in-law in Arizona the previous month. It was the beginning of an explosively creative period in all aspects of my life, but I wasn't aware at the time. Holiday 2010 is represented by fake snow for the wondering Arizonans at the Winterhaven lights display.

By 2011, we had moved to our own apartment in Arizona and both had interesting jobs, and I was writing like crazy. But we hadn't been able to get our stuff out of storage, so at home, we decorated a tree with candy canes and a beautiful compass rose ornament I received from an author who had already become a good friend. This year, we had even more fun at the Winterhaven display because we found this gorgeous Christmas rhino!


We moved from Arizona to Georgia in 2012, but didn't make it to Christmas there. Instead, we went from the boiling pot of water that was summer in Georgia to the icebox winter of Illinois. This was the Christmas my husband realized that I own four giant tubs worth of Christmas decorations, enough to decorate our tree several times over. My mom got me started when I was a kid, and you can't throw away memories like that. I accomplished the amazing feat of finishing my first novel, Seven Noble Knights, in November 2012, and it's commemorated with the cake and the thumb drive, and the new ornament.

Christmas 2013 was probably the most surprising of all, as my husband and I had been living in a hotel in North Carolina since May. We never expected to stay there for so many months, and yet again, our stuff was in storage. We got a little tinsel tree and set it on top of the dehumidifier I insisted on earlier in the year. Those North Carolina summers might be even wetter than the one in Georgia!

And that brings us to this year! In the photo, our tree with a lot, but not all, of the ornaments from the four tubs, stands out in front of a medieval Christmas banner I picked up at a museum in New York City and stacks and piles of other memories. Note the Fight for Rhinos sustainably sourced wooden ornament, front and center.

Finally, this photo was taken on Thanksgiving Day, but the bare trees, the church tower, and roofs covered in snow scream Christmas.

Coming soon: a guest post from outstanding author Kristin Gleeson!

Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving with Waterfire

Happy Thanksgiving! When I first showed this excerpt to my critique group, one member said there was too much good stuff going on and I should add some bad stuff back in. I didn't think Thanksgiving was the time to punish my main character, Kelly, who already has a lot of rough life issues to deal with. 
Kelly and Brian attend the school for fire starters (the PMA), where they are watched and curbed and reigned in at all times. They have to wear patches that contain substances that prevent them from randomly setting things on fire. At Brian's house, things are a little more relaxed.

Brian took me into the kitchen for a snack and oh my God, there were like a million potluck dishes steaming away on the counters. The ovens and burners were cooking away, too. It was like an army was coming through, and Brian pointed to each dish and told me what it was and whether I could dig in yet. Most of the things were pre-dinner lunch-snacks. We each took a plate of roasted chicken and noodles to the back deck, where they would be able to see the planes coming in if only it weren’t Thanksgiving Day with its small number of flights. No one else was out there—it was freezing!
We ate our food and talked about stuff. He complimented my piano playing and I complimented his singing, and because I smelled wood smoke in the air, it made me think of Waterfire.
“Brian,” I said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about how you can put fires out with your Talent. Do you think it’s something any pyro can learn?”
“Yeah,” he said, setting his plate on the railing. “Let’s try it now. Make a fire on my plate. It’s stoneware.”
“I can’t. I’m wearing my patch. Aren’t you?”
He reached inside his sleeve and pulled out his tungsten patch. “Where do you have yours?”
I set my plate down next to his and lifted my shirt a little to reveal the patch next to my bellybutton. The location had worked well yesterday for scratching unseen at the dinner table.
His hand was strangely warm as he lifted the side of the patch and tore it off. I guess it was the feel of skin on skin? We gravitated toward each other, I lifted my face and he bent down a little and like magnets, we were all of a sudden kissing.
I heard an explosion near my ear and pulled away in time to see sparks falling onto my plate and settling around the leftover noodles and bones, smoking just a bit, and making a decent little blaze.
“You didn’t have to do that to get me to make a fire,” I said.
“No, I wanted to do that, didn’t you?” he said.
“Right now you should put out the fire,” I told him.
“No, it’s your fire. You try.”
A few adults had come running to the back door at the sound of the explosion, so I felt watched. Brian waved them away, and finally Brian’s dad told them we had it under control. All the while, of course, the blaze was growing in strength and I was getting more and more stressed.
“You can put it out now,” said Brian.
Easier said than done. I stared at the flames until they looked dark, but couldn’t wrap my head around the way to take them out of existence. I’m still not sure how I get them into existence, after all! I squinted and strained, then looked at Brian for help. “How do you do it?”
“I just reverse the process of setting a fire. It’s very intuitive.”
I sighed and tried sticking my hand out the way he had at Waterfire, but the only thing that happened was my arm got cold away from my body.
“I give up!”
“See, this is why we need practice rooms at the PMA. How will any of us ever get familiar with how we operate, how can we focus our intentions, when all they ever do is throw flame retardant at us?” He held his hand out and sucked my fire into his finger with no apparent effort, like he’d been doing it all his life.
He blew on the end of his finger like it was a pistol or something and came in for a hug.
“Back to the piano for a while?” he asked me.

I nodded, and when he went to open the back door, I scooped up the patch he’d ripped off me and pressed it under my shirt again. It had some dirt and twigs, but it was a lot better than setting fire to his family home.

Waterfire, the middle story of Awash in Talent, will be published in 2015!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Magical is Here in Softcover and Kindle!

Even earlier than anticipated, Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Magical Fiction for Adults is ready to be read and enjoyed. Bring some magic to your holidays or to the reader in your life. 

This is a collection of 31 stories from writers around the globe. Whether retelling classics like "Little Red Riding Hood" or inventing new tales of goblins, dragons, witches, or singing frogs, these stories will take adults back to the innocent enjoyment of a well-told tale. 

And the cover is gorgeous, too!

I tell about the inspiration for my contribution here. I'd like to thank the hotel for the creativity it permitted me. I'd also like to send my gratitude to the Eckleburg Workshop in Magical Realism.

At this early date, Magical is available here and here (with other venues sure to come soon). The best thing about buying your own copy (aside from getting 31 mind-bending tales of the highest quality) is that 10% of the proceeds from this link go toward Tim's Team, cystic fibrosis research and awareness! You can check off your holiday charitable donation while indulging your brain (no calories!). 

UPDATE: The Kindle edition is now available here! Cheaper and more portable!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Coming Soon: Magic!

Image by Keller at Deviant Art 
Just in time for Christmas, I'm pleased to say that a story of mine will appear in Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Magical Fiction for Adults. It's shaping up to be quite an impressive anthology. Anyone who's into magical realism is sure to find something to love! Three of the stories are featured as prize winners! I can hardly wait to read them.

My contribution, titled "The Residents of the Inn," is a playful take on the Arachne myth. It was inspired by the eight months my husband and I lived in a hotel in North Carolina last year and a little spider who persisted in making a web in the corner behind the door. We never saw any insects fall into it because every day, it got cleaned away. By the end of the day, it would be back again. I admired the sticktoitiveness.

Because we lived in the hotel for so long, we got to know some of the staff, and a certain one of them inspired the main character in the story. My husband and I make fictionalized appearances, too. Be sure to check us out when the anthology is available.

I'll debut the cover and provide links as soon as I can. Thanks for sharing my excitement!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I may well be the last person to read Vampires in the Lemon Grove. (I hope not! I hope many more readers discover its delights!) But I just heard the news of the title story from Karen Russell's first collection being developed for ABC. That is a beautiful event that deserves celebration: a wonderfully strange piece of literature of the type I most admire and aspire to, translated to other, more popular media! So I'm going to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about her second story collection, which happens to have a title appropriate for the week before Halloween.

It's hard for me remember that Karen Russell is a bestselling author. Of course I'm glad she is and don't begrudge her any other honors—just the opposite. It's just that when I read her stories, I always think she's speaking directly to me and no one else could possibly enjoy this writing as much as I do. That illusion of intimacy when apparently the books appeal to tons of other readers is the sign of literature that will last.

There are some pretty creepy stories in Vampires, if you like that kind of thing. Each story is memorable for its startling way of presenting weird images as familiar. Take, for example, a mangy seagull. Anyone who's spent time living near the sea knows them to be pretty annoying. But as annoying as the seagulls in Karen Russell's world? I had no idea. And most readers know that if a character bullies someone, he'll be haunted—but never before quite like this.

I don't lean toward the darkness in general. While there's plenty of darkness here, in contrast to the first collection, in Vampires it serves to cause real change in most of the characters and, in some cases, to contrast with the light at the end of their journey.

For me, the most amazing journey takes place in "The New Veterans." A massage therapist with her own issues comes into her power as a healer when working on a man with PTSD. In her dealings with him, the implicit question is whether it is more important to uphold "the truth" or to heal. I know what I think, and apparently Karen Russell agrees.

If you've missed Vampires in the Lemon Grove so far, don't hesitate to pick it up now. There's something here for every reader.

Monday, October 13, 2014

New Pictures of the Rarest Rhino

Five species of rhinoceros survive today. The smallest in number is the Javan rhino.

It is often said that the Sumatran is the most endangered species of rhino, even though at least three times as many of them live in the wild. Javans may be considered less under attack partially because of their elusiveness: in order to poach a rhinoceros, you have to be able to find it. No Javan rhino has survived more than a year in captivity since a male at the London Zoo, which passed away in 1885. Many recent expeditions have spent weeks on the trail only to come back without a single camera-trap photo. About 35 of these rhinos are estimated to live today in the jungles of the Ujung Kulon Peninsula. This is a geographical area of 1206 km2 on the western tip of Java, in stark contrast to their former range all over Southeast Asia.

Here’s where the story gets crazy: Ujung Kulon is in the path of destruction if/when the Krakatau volcano erupts again. This is the reason the area has been mostly abandoned by humans, allowing extraordinary flora and fauna to flourish in their absence. It also creates the terrible possibility that entire species—including the Javan rhino—will be utterly wiped out. My flash fiction “The Last Ultrasound” originally included a breakneck plot in which Krakatau erupts, but I abandoned it as too unwieldy for such a short story. Plantations of invasive palm trees that the rhinos can’t use further jeopardize their modest habitat.

To say that it’s unlikely I will ever see a Javan rhino in person is an understatement. Until recently, grainy low-res camera-trap photos were the only glimpse anyone ever got of these mysterious beings. The wonders of crowdfunding recently permitted professional photographer Steve Belcher to spend unprecedented patience floating along the rivers of Ujung Kulon in search of these rhinos—and he’s returned with some gorgeous treasures.

Also known as the lesser one-horned rhino, Javans have the same basic shape and coloring as Indian rhinos, but tend to be much smaller. Their skin lacks the bumpy quality of the Indian rhino and their features look softer, perhaps more juvenile. Unique among the species, it appears that females never grow the trademark rhino horn. Javans are also the best swimmers of all the rhinos. Rather than just standing in shallow water, they appear to be able to stay afloat and travel with purpose through the waterways of Ujung Kulon.

These pictures allow us to appreciate the finer details and perhaps some of the life force behind Javan rhinos even though we will never be in their presence. Let’s hope human beings and the massive volcano can leave these lovely creatures to flourish for much time to come.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Red-haired Beauty

A Greater One-Horned or Indian rhino (with ravishing locks of blond
hair on the ears only) at the Cincinnati Zoo. 
I recently made a promise to travel to Cincinnati, where a brown-eyed, red-haired beauty awaited, but probably not for long. The urgency to the pledge is that Harapan (“Harry” to his keepers) is currently the only Sumatran rhinoceros living outside of Indonesia. I believe he’ll soon join his kin and help freshen the DNA of the species.

Within Indonesia, only about 100 Sumatran rhinos thrive under heavy guard from passionately dedicated rangers. If only other people would leave them to it, the rhinos could thrive without the guard, but that’s the current state of the world.

A lovely black rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo. 
Sumatran rhinos are special beyond their rarity. They’re the only direct descendants of the extinct wooly rhinoceros, and they display that inheritance proudly with a unique coat of red hair. In contrast to their wooly ancestor, Sumatran rhinos are the smallest of the five remaining species, averaging a tidy half ton instead of an entire ton.

I’ve been the in presence of black, white, and Indian rhinos before and loved them all. I have a completist tendency, and when I heard about Harapan, his history as part of the success of Cincinnati’s breeding program made him all the more meaningful. When my day job slowed down, I asked my husband if he’d like to go on a road trip. We were concerned that we might drive nearly a thousand miles to arrive at an empty enclosure, so we wrote to the zoo to ask if there was any way we could be sure Harapan would be on public view on a given day. In the end, there was no way to be sure because of the Sumatran rhino’s “delicate” nature. Off we went, fueled by faith, through gorgeous fall colors and wind and rain. We stopped to see friends, but the rhino tension just kept mounting. Would we see this rarity or just go home?

When we awoke on the day, the rain was coming down so hard, I had the doom-and-gloom idea that Harapan wouldn’t even think about going outside to get pummeled by water and struck by lightning. Then my husband said the rain would keep the zoo from being very crowded, so we’d have him all to ourselves. I was a swirling yin-yang of hope and pessimism.

Coming in the zoo entrance, the Sumatran rhino area is tucked away where you have to be determined to see it, but if you are, it’s the first thing on the left. Visitors must go down a twisting ramp that keeps the exhibits tantalizingly out of direct view. I was running down the slope, holding my hood over my head against the rain, to see that the enclosure is covered by decorated tarps so no downpour can bother Harapan overmuch. All of a sudden, I saw him, coming out of his pool as if it were a day at the spa. I shouted back to my husband, and even to myself I sounded like Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: “There he is!” I guess we had the appropriate amount of sincerity.

Harapan the Sumatran rhino. 
What a handsome young rhino!

My impression is that Sumatran rhinos don’t photograph well. Before I went to Cincinnati, I couldn’t get much sense of personality from the pictures I’d seen. The camera picks up wrinkles and hairiness before what we might think of as more positive traits and often darkens the russet-colored hair. But as Harapan moved about with the casual grace of someone who knows he’s loved, I could find no fault with him.

He daintily probed the mud hole, considering whether or not he’d like to have a good roll, until he did, slathering his entire left side.

He looked a little like the Phantom of the Opera at that point. He rubbed against a post, looking as if he were in Indonesia marking the trees with his mud. He may have the chance to do that soon! Some more investigating all over the enclosure led him to the conclusion that the only way to clear the mud out of his eye was to get back in the pool.

At :43 he swipes near his eye with his three-toed foot—not a typical move for a quadruped, I don’t think.

Soon after, Harapan had had enough of our adoration and “left the building.” 

“These ten minutes were worth the thousand miles—or more,” said my husband. I couldn’t have said it better. We are fortunate beyond words to have been able to make such a meaningful journey. We now number among the lucky few who have spent a little time with a rare and enchanting Sumatran rhinoceros.

The sad fact is that there is another rhino species with even fewer living individuals than the Sumatran: the Javan. More on those extraordinary creatures coming soon.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Road Trip, With Windmills

Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain
The yellow plains undulate before you like a gigantic quilt. As you glide along, if you’ve seen three other cars today, it’s a lot. The quiet hum of a Spanish-engineered air conditioner insulates you from the explosive, desiccant sunlight. There are four big indicators that you’re not in Nevada or Arizona:

The three cars you’ve seen are Renaults or SEATs, like yours.

The speedometer shows a number that seems impossibly huge until you remember it’s in in kilometers.

There are no advertising billboards. Only the wordless Osbourne bull creates a black shadow on the horizon.

Over the a. c., you hear strumming guitars, hollow cajones, rhythmic clapping, and voices that are somehow mournful and the most joyous sound in the world.

Driving through Castilla and Andalusia is one of the greatest simple pleasures I’ve found in life. I last did this with the man I love beyond words during our honeymoon five years ago.

Recently, I discovered that through the wonder of the internet, I can listen to radio stations from Spain right here in the USA. The full sensory experience of Spanish road trips came rushing back to me. I want to send out my sincere thanks to whomever set up this miraculous web streaming.

And wish a happy anniversary to my sweet husband!


Monday, September 22, 2014

World Rhino Day 2014

It’s here! The greatest day of the year!

If you don’t know of any events taking place near you, you can still make a contribution simply by staying informed about rhino problems and also about what makes them so wonderful

The Stop Poaching Now! campaign includes practical, on the ground ideas for deterring and catching poachers as well as decreasing demand for horn, which is the only overarching solution. 

On October 4, the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos gives everyone a physical activity to do in support of anti-poaching efforts. There may be a march in a city near you!

My husband and I have supported rhinos every way we can feasibly think of, mainly with small monetary donations. Our up-close experience with two gorgeous white rhinos helped increase the joy quotient in the world, which is no small thing.

Additionally, on this day of concentrated rhinocity, I would like to make a couple of personal pledges.

Currently, I believe there is only one Sumatran rhino in the United States of America. His name is Harapan, and the future of his species may require that he be moved to Indonesia, where the few others of his kind live. If that happens, he’ll be that much less practical for my husband and I to visit. We pledge that we will visit Harapan within the year and tell you all about him. 

Second, I pledge that my next writing project will be for the rhinos. I’m planning it as a sort of thriller (which I’ve never attempted to write before, so we’ll just see how it works out) that will entertain at the same time it informs. When I’m writing a novel, I spend every spare moment thinking about and putting my passion into it. What better way to support the animals I most love than with the activity I most love?

Happy World Rhino Day. Celebrate rhinos today and every day and the world will be richer for it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Do You Want Your Books in Paper or Parchment?

Please welcome Kim Rendfeld to my blog. Kim's latest well-researched and heart-touching historical novel is The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar. I had a small part in bringing both of Kim's novels to publication, and she has read my Seven Noble Knights and provided invaluable historical insight. Today she's talking about something we of the 21st-century often take for granted: literacy.

Hrabanus Maurus presenting his book to Pope Gregory IV (Fulda, 831-840)
(Austrian National Library)
What a book was made of seems trivial, but that choice had consequences for the spread of knowledge in entire early medieval societies.

One thing that struck me in Jessica’s Seven Noble Knights was that literacy was so widespread on the Muslim side of the border in tenth-century Spain. Even the common soldiers could read and might own a book. No so in eighth-century Francia, the setting for my novels, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. In the world of my characters, few people could read, and even fewer could write.

The reason for this difference had nothing to do with intelligence. Rather, it was the material used to produce books. Muslims used paper, which was much more affordable than the parchment favored by Christians.

Parchment came from sheepskin, and one sheepskin produced two large pages. So, a large book required a lot of sheep. This meant that to have the raw materials for a book, you needed enough land to devote to feeding sheep instead of raising crops.

On top of that was the cost of labor. A normal size manuscript took a team of scribes two to three months to copy by hand, and then it was edited by the head of the shop. If the book had special merit, an artist would be brought in to decorate letters and paint leaves kept in reserve. After that, the book was assembled, and if expensive, bound, an innovation of the Carolingians. Really special books had gold or ivory in the binding.

So literacy – and the scientific, theological, and philosophic knowledge contained within books – was limited to the clergy and wealthy laity. In Francia, books were so precious that owners invoked dire consequences if they were damaged. One scribe wrote: “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.”

In an age where litanies were performed to gain God’s favor in an upcoming war, these are not empty words. If you borrowed a book, you would be especially motivated to take care of it. God’s anger was terrifying enough, but you certainly wouldn’t want to offend His Mother, whom you often asked to intercede for you.

Books are a new things for the main characters in my latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. Not only are Leova and her children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn, illiterate Saxon peasants and recent converts to Christianity; they are taken to Francia from a culture that doesn’t have a written language as we know it. They are war captives sold into slavery, and although they learn a new spoken language, Roman, they never learn the written language of Latin.

In this excerpt, we’ll meet Thomas the clerk, one of the few literate people in this novel, and find out why it’s good to be friends with a guy who can read. Here, he is reading a message from Countess Gerhilda’s brother about the death of their father.

While Gerhilda bawled, Thomas silently read a few more lines, stared at Sunwynn, and squinted at the parchment. “I apologize, my lady, this parchment has been written on more than once and is hard to read.” He looked at Sunwynn’s face then at the parchment. “It has rained almost every day.”

Her brow furrowed, Sunwynn puzzled over Thomas’s actions. His explanation of why he had hesitated did not ring true. Why had he gazed at her after he read the message? Had he read something that concerned her? She had no idea what it could be. She was unimportant. Patting Gerhilda’s hand, Sunwynn felt ashamed for her relief that Gerhilda was too distracted to notice.

The clerk continued to read about spring planting and the number of men who went to war. When he finished the letter, he rolled the parchment. “I would advise against trading today, Countess.”

“No, not today,” Gerhilda said in a monotone.

Gerhilda released Sunwynn’s hand and wrapped her arms around her large belly. Sunwynn stood, stepped past her lady, and grabbed the half full cup.

“Let me fetch you some more wine, my lady,” she said softly, “to calm you and help the baby.”

“Don’t tarry.” Gerhilda’s eyes carried a plea, not an order.

“No, no, my lady. I promise.”

Hurrying toward the wine cellar, Sunwynn wondered how she could ask Thomas about the letter. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Thomas bow to Gerhilda and leave the hearth. Instead of going directly to the tower, he rubbed his forehead and said something about needing herbs for a headache. She slowed a little as she went through the door, and soon Thomas caught up with her. Walking alongside her, he did not seem ill at all.

When they were outside, Thomas looked over his shoulder, then directed his gaze toward Sunwynn. “There was something else in that letter,” he murmured.

“What is it?”

Thomas looked over his shoulder again. Sunwynn did the same. Servants were bustling about, but no one could overhear them if they kept their voices low.

“A Saxon slave has run away,” Thomas said.


Thomas offered his arm for support. Sunwynn grasped his forearm and leaned against him. She staggered forward, almost spilling the wine.

“So he is your kin?” Thomas asked.

“My brother.” Sunwynn gulped a mouthful of wine. “He must be mad. He will die out there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I needed to know. But why did you keep this from Gerhilda?”

“I’ve known of too many masters who punish the whole family for one servant’s misdeed. No good would come from punishing you and your mother, and I am…” Thomas shook his head. “You are a good woman.”

If circumstances were different, I would ask my brother to betroth me to you. Behind her, the sound of footsteps pounding against the hardened ground shook Sunwynn from her daydream. Releasing Thomas, she turned. The merchant was running toward her, his face pale, his eyes wide.

“Countess… in pain…”


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne by John Butt

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, like her on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What to Do For the Rhinos?

There is far too little good news in the rhinoceros world. These extraordinary creatures have been on the brink for a few years now, and some now show that the poaching rate has overtaken the birth rate.

The good news is that there are easy things you can take part in to help!

The International Rhino Keeper Association's 2015 calendar is on sale now and will cost $22 until World Rhino Day (September 22). It's a huge bargain for twelve excellent rhino photos, 365 days of the year, and the knowledge that you will be helping to save the few remaining Javan rhinos.

The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos takes place October 4. Find out where the march is taking place near you and how to sign up. The postcards in this blog post have information for the one nearest me, Boston, Massachusetts.

Thelma and Louise will thank you!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Unusual Historicals: The Cantigas de Santa Maria

Alfonso X el Sabio as mediator in the F manuscript.
Today at Unusual Historicals I get to share with you the medieval phenomenon that occupied my every waking moment for three years, all told: the Cantigas de Santa Maria. I hope you can glimpse why there's so much to love about these thirteenth-century songs. Enjoy!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar by Kim Rendfeld and a Chance to Win a Copy

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family sell them into slavery instead.
In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman, attracting the lust of a cruel master, and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion — but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

* * *

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar brings Kim Rendfeld's painstaking research and sensitive psychological drama to some people we never hear about in the history books. Not only are the main characters the losers in Charlemagne's campaigns, but they also start out in a hardscrabble life and spend most of the book under horrifying conditions of servitude. As in Rendfeld’s first novel, the emotional impact of the story slowly builds to epic proportions as the plot becomes more complex, but it never dips into the realm of fantasy. The situations and characters are relentlessly real, with hard choices and terrible villains who are, if we stop and think about it, products of their time. I’m also impressed with the depictions of travel in Ashes: it’s hard and sometimes boring for the characters, but for the reader it’s never dull. This novel is a true immersion into a foreign time and place. When you’ve finished reading, you’ll be able to remember the houses, castles, markets, and bathhouses (yes, medieval people bathed regularly!) as if you had been there yourself.

The reader will sympathize with Leova and her family. The author throws tremendous obstacles at them, but they persevere and come to satisfying conclusions with family, living conditions, and even a little romance.

The Cross and the Dragon, Rendfeld's strong debut, illuminated a “dark age” for readers with a wonderful story, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar manages to surpass it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar debuted on August 28. See it here!

Advance Praise for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar
“Carolingian Europe comes alive in Kim Rendfeld’s sweeping story of family and hope, set against the Saxon Wars. Her transportive and triumphant novel immerses us in an eighth century world that feels both mystical and starkly real.”  —Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye

“A captivating historical filled with rich detail, compelling characters, and a well-paced plot that keeps the pages turning to its very satisfying end. A true delight for fans of historical fiction. I couldn’t put it down.” —Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi Mysteries

The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is refreshingly set in a less familiar medieval period – soon after Charlemagne has conquered a portion of today’s Germany and its people. The characters are refreshing also, common folk instead of the lords and ladies who are the usual inhabitants of historical novels, and how they adjust to their new condition is fascinating. Altogether, this book was absorbing from start to finish.” —Roberta Gellis, author of The Roselynde Chronicles

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar is having a Goodreads giveaway! Enter now for your chance!